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Some Democrats urge party to weigh alternatives for national convention amid coronavirus outbreak

A worker outside the Arizona site of the Democratic presidential debate, which was scheduled for Sunday, begins the process of breaking down the venue as the Democratic National Committee is moving the presidential debate from Arizona to Washington because of concerns about coronavirus Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Some Democratic Party officials this week began to express concern about plans to bring tens of thousands of people to Milwaukee for the July convention, even as the party’s leadership said it was not entertaining canceling the event or holding it remotely.

In Wisconsin, where Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday declared a health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, Andrew Werthmann, a member of the Democratic National Committee, said he intended to raise questions about the need for contingencies. “We have to look at this,” he said.

Concern deepened as state parties took it upon themselves to alter their procedures in compliance with health guidelines. On Thursday, the Nevada Democratic Party canceled county conventions scheduled for next month. And Werthmann said one of his counterparts in California had informed him via text message that meetings to elect new DNC members in the state had been canceled, replaced by a mail-in system.

“Wish us luck,” the California member requested.

As for guidance from the national party’s executive committee, Janet Bewley, a Wisconsin state senator and DNC member, said, “I haven’t heard a peep.”

The fate of the convention presents a potential conundrum for Democrats.

Thousands of delegates, activists and others in the party faithful are expected to cram into the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee for the July event.

But the quest to showcase the nominee they hope will oust President Trump could run counter to the advice of public health experts, who are advising against large gatherings, if the coronavirus outbreak remains severe in the summer.

“We are having a convention,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “There are no talks about a virtual convention right now.”

But those orders have not stopped high-level DNC officials from beginning informal discussions about alternative plans — in particular, how to prepare remote options while avoiding the sort of technology problems that plagued caucuses in Iowa and Nevada early this year.

An uncontested convention, with one nominee holding a clear majority of delegate votes walking in, is a far simpler undertaking from a voting perspective than is a statewide caucus. There are only 4,750 pledged and automatic delegates who have ballots and only five votes that need to be taken. Unlike an election, the positions of most of the voters is public, making it harder to game the outcome.

Brookings senior fellow Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC’s rules committee who has studied the party’s primary system, said she has had multiple informal conversations with Democratic officials about contingencies. There are traditionally five votes cast on the floor: Votes to accept reports from the credentials, rules and platform committees, as well as votes on the president and vice president. Votes can be added if the reporting committees have alternate proposals moved to the floor, or if no presidential or vice presidential nominee gets a majority of delegates.

“I don’t think the rules pose a challenge; I think the technology poses a tremendous challenge,” Kamarck said. “Because the votes are transparent. It is not a private vote. The security issues I think will be there, but I don’t think they will be there in quite the same way as a first-tier caucus vote in Iowa.”

Already the pandemic has caused presidential campaigns to call off rallies, shutter field offices and schedule virtual town halls. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is ordering its staff home starting Saturday, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post. And on Thursday, the Democratic National Committee moved to relocate Sunday’s primary debate from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., where it will take place without a live audience.

The steps follow guidance from public health experts, who are advising against large gatherings as part of a strategy known as social distancing.

But the inability to predict how long these precautions will be necessary has placed the election in a state of suspended uncertainty. “We’re all sort of a deer in the headlights,” said Bewley, the state senator and DNC member.

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Questions loom especially large about the summer conventions, where the parties spend millions of dollars formally nominating their candidates and rallying their supporters for the November showdown.

Trump depends on large gatherings to motivate his base, and the committee planning the Republican convention, set for August in Charlotte, said Thursday it has “full faith and confidence in the administration’s aggressive actions to address COVID-19.”

“As we move forward with planning, we remain in close contact with local, state and federal officials and we will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with all stakeholders and health authorities to ensure every necessary precaution is taken into account,” added a spokeswoman, Blair Ellis.

The dilemma is perhaps even more acute for Democrats, whose convention precedes the Republican gathering by several weeks.

David Jefferson, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who has counseled the party on technology issues, said the risk of involving technology would not be an intrusion causing the wrong person to be nominated but rather vulnerabilities making it possible to create chaos and confusion in the balloting process.

“I see no end of trouble there,” he said.

A mail-in option would be simpler, Jefferson added, but would still require a way to authenticate ballots.

Democratic staffers planning the July convention were still working in a downtown Milwaukee office building as of Thursday. Preparations unfolding for months have involved collaboration with city, county and state health officials, as well as Milwaukee’s police department and the Secret Service. Now, the coronavirus is part of those discussions.

While scenario planning for everything from a cyberattack to a public health crisis has been central to the preparations, the spread of the novel virus has not yet prompted the convention committee to consider virtual options, according to a source familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, said the hope is that the pandemic would be over by July, and that alternatives would be unnecessary.

“By then, obviously all of us hope it’s old news,” he said in an interview.